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Restoring the home of The Grange Opera Festival to its former glory

PUBLISHED: 09:43 16 May 2017 | UPDATED: 09:43 16 May 2017

The Grange driveway before the lake views were revealed (Photo by Joe Low)

The Grange driveway before the lake views were revealed (Photo by Joe Low)

Copyright: Joe Low

Asking eminent landscape architect Kim Wilkie to restore the home of The Grange Opera Festival to its former glory appears a pitch perfect choice, as Viv Micklefield discovers during a sneak preview

With the mist sticking like candyfloss to the surrounding hills, the skeletal trees and slate grey waters of the lake below barely stir. Puddles following a recent rain shower still litter the gravel drive leading towards the mighty stone columns, which sap what little heat remains in the day. Yet extending a warm handshake, as he walks down the steps of The Grange, Kim Wilkie appears undeterred by the inclement weather.

“I actually love it when it’s like this, because there’s a real softness to the landscape,” Kim enthuses, instantly revealing an empathy with the natural environment which has become a hallmark of his work. Pointing out the various elements at play, including the feature bridge designed by Robert Adam, he explains: “Here, it’s a case of understanding where the land folds and the water flows, and of just working with the underlying topography. That’s what the English Landscape movement was all about: having a fully functioning agricultural estate and, at the same time, making it look beautiful.”

So, just as The Grange Festival 2017 marks a new beginning, under recently appointed artistic director Michael Chance, the surrounding 600-acre parkland is also undergoing the initial phase of a major facelift, in time for June’s opening opera performance.

The man charged with stripping back the layers of landscaping history, dating from the 1760s under Robert Henley, 1st Lord Northington, talks of the need to allow the memory and imagination of what has gone before, to inspire fresh design. “I was aware of The Grange estate,” says Kim, “But then did a huge amount of research in the archives at the Hampshire Record Office.”

A central focal point remains the house itself, which by the early 19th century when the Baring family acquired it, had gained the now familiar neo classical temple-like façade. Today under the custodianship of Natural England, their grant support towards the six-figure sum project reflects Kim’s delicate touch.

“The only twist is that this is now a ‘ruin’ that’s used for opera, rather than as a house. The building has been beautifully designed to sit within its landscape; it captures the essence of English Arcadia and that idea of being a perfect natural landscape that’s grazed and farmed, and eternally sustainable.

“When this estate was first laid out, it was done with a very clever and subtle eye. Sometimes people call this landscape picturesque but, actually, it’s much gentler and more to do with the poetry of the Augustans, and the Renaissance revivalists.”

A notion, which according to Kim is “less about the wham, bam of waterfalls and craggy rocks”, and instead about being linked to the land.

Brains trust: Frim left, Grange festival artistic director Michael Chance, festival general manager Michael Moody, Kim Wilkie and Alan Titchmarsh (Photo by Joe Low)Brains trust: Frim left, Grange festival artistic director Michael Chance, festival general manager Michael Moody, Kim Wilkie and Alan Titchmarsh (Photo by Joe Low)

And here speaks someone at the top of the landscape architecture tree having completed projects ranging from London’s V&A courtyard to the historic Thames reach between Kew and Hampton. Abroad, Kim is currently working his magic at a Florentine villa and on restoring Portugal’s pastoral heritage. “He’s done some extremely interesting work in all sorts of places” says Mark Baring, The Grange’s current landowner, describing Kim’s involvement, as “a very logical choice”.

Whilst this project displays none of the radicalism evident in the inverted pyramid installed within the classical grounds of Boughton House, Northamptonshire, his visionary approach remains consistent. It’s been honed in the decades since a history degree and potential diplomatic career was swapped for studying at the College of Environmental Design at Berkeley, California. And, these days the youthful looking 61-year-old (it must be all this fresh air) finds much of his inspiration at Franklin Farm, near Bishop’s Waltham, which Kim inherited from his parents and moved back into five years ago.

“My own property is a small holding rather than an estate,” he laughs. “I love being there especially after having been away. It was very exciting to be asked to do this particular country estate project because of all the places that I know for its opera, there are not many places that are as dramatic as this.”

And, appropriately, there’s a very theatrical reveal employed. First to seduce festival audiences will be the property’s new approach from the north-west which, on a clear day, affords countryside views up to 40 miles away. Partially following the line of original 18th century drive, this then sweeps with curvaceous elegance through the woodland, providing he says, the most enchanting vistas.

“You’ll see Swarraton Church, followed by glimpses of the lake and then the house itself. What’s extremely clever about being so high up above the lake is that, from the drive, it looks as though the water comes right up to the terrace steps. By taking a few more of the trees out you’ll be able to see how the lake curves all the way to the bridge.

“There are some fantastic local contractors that have been involved with the tree work here but it’s sometimes a case of nipping back and saying ‘that tree should go’ and ‘that tree should stay’. You can only do so much from plans; to get the real three-dimensional views, you have to be onsite.”

With dogwood and other tangled shrubs also removed from the water’s edge, all that remains is to grass over the resulting mud bath. Looking carefully it’s possible to make out the gravel veins that once drifted from the soon to be removed parterre garden, which Kim confirms will be mowed tightly, leaving the grass around the edge longer to create a natural grass path.

The trick is he says “to know when to stop”, simplicity being the key to achieving the desired effect. “You’ll come out of an opera with your head full of music, wander into the new meadow, have your picnic and then return inside. I’m hoping the paths will be lit by candlelight.” The words of someone who’s a bit of a romantic, perhaps? “Yes, I am. Completely.”

An unusual view of landscaping work in progress, taken from a hot air balloon (Photo by Simon Walker)An unusual view of landscaping work in progress, taken from a hot air balloon (Photo by Simon Walker)

And Alan Titchmarsh, who’s a board member of The Grange Festival and is collaborating with Kim to ensure the wider plans for the park marry with the intended festival experience, has nothing but enthusiasm for such masterstrokes. “His ability to elevate and improve a landscape with sensitivity and élan is second to none. It is an honour and delight for me to have some small involvement in the work of a landscaping giant,” Alan says, adding: “The Grange is hugely fortunate to benefit from his skills.”

The man himself remains delightfully modest about how little he’s had to tweak what was previously hidden. Indeed, his home county return has led to the self-discovery that Arcadia can be found anywhere.

“The idea of sitting gently on the land still resonates in the 21st century. When I’m wheeling hay out to my cows this idea becomes particularly vivid.” To complete the look at The Grange, says Kim, they should, “definitely consider getting some sheep”, and he’s not joking.

Festival lowdown

• Where: The Grange, Northington, Alresford, SO24 9TG

• When: Wednesday 7 June – Sunday 9 July

• What: the world-class Festival features a new production of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, with the Academy of Ancient Music; Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s Requiem with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Britten’s Albert Herring, with the Aurora Orchestra; and the John Wilson Orchestra performing A Celebration of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Rodgers and Hart.

• Tickets: thegrangefestival.co.uk

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